By Andreas Huyssen. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015. 346 pages. $39.95.
Andreas Huyssen begins his book by acknowledging the fact that it took many years of teaching comparative literature to discover the metropolitan miniature as a “major [End Page 137] and largely misrecognized mode of modernist writing” (ix). Fortunately for the reader, Huyssen has condensed those years of labor into the highly readable yet intellectually stimulating book at hand, which establishes a trajectory of the literary practice from Baudelaire to Adorno. “A deliberately short form” often first published in the feuilleton section of large newspapers (3), the metropolitan miniature understands the new face of the big cities around and after the turn of the century—those “laboratories of perception” (3) shaped by industrialization and the acceleration of urban experience brought on by modern technology—as the “sine qua non of modern life and experience” (6).
In contrast to the nineteenth-century urban novel, the miniature metropolis shuns extended narrative structures and avoids realistic description in its portrayal of rapidly changing cityscapes; “they offer protocols of dreams rather than descriptions of urban sites” (6). Central to this effort is the metropolitan miniature’s affinity to photography and film. Although they were not originally published with accompanying photographs or illustrations, the texts Huyssen presents are all intrinsically concerned with the relationship between literature and the new visual media. This bond goes deeper than surface patterns of text-and-image to what Huyssen calls “remediation in reverse” (8): the process by which authors of metropolitan miniatures asserted the “Eigensinn” (8) of literature while simultaneously “[making the] new media productive for the literary enterprise without resorting to imitation” (7). In doing so, the authors of miniatures “critically articulated the constitutive dialectic between image and language” (14) following the advent of photography and film.
Along with offering an account of literature’s reaction to the visual media around the time those media were first being intellectually theorized by the likes of Kracauer, Benjamin, and Brecht, Huyssen’s take on the metropolitan miniature offers an underlying reason why the genre should attract more interest from scholars than it has so far: “the miniature as a form [ . . . ] reveals the constitutive relationship between modernist literature and German critical theory” (2). Huyssen interprets an impressive range of texts, from Baudelaire and Rilke through Kafka, Benn, Keun, and Jünger to Musil, but the works of Kracauer, Benjamin, and Adorno are a constant reference throughout the book and lend the study its theoretical core. Huyssen’s volume will be of great interest to scholars of literary modernism in general, especially because Huyssen frames the metropolitan miniature as a precursor to the more ambitious—and much more widely treated—form of the modern novel.
In the “trajectory” of the genre that Huyssen traces in Miniature Metropolis, Baudelaire is the “seminal point de depart” (23). Having stripped earlier modes of impressionistic urban writing of their more specific references to reality—place names and landmarks, for example—Baudelaire infused the form with a more fundamental “reflection on the changing perceptions of city life and the city’s effects on structures of subjectivity at a time of rapid urbanization, industrialization, and the evolution of bohemian subculture” (27). Rilke is the next link in the chain, and Chapter One is largely dedicated to a comparison of his work to the earlier Baudelaire: both share an “intense visual sensibility” (37) that manifests itself in their depictions of how city life affects the subjectivity of their characters, but the “shock” of these new urban experiences has differing outcomes for Baudelaire’s narrator in Le Spleen de Paris, who resists or succumbs in ennui to them, and Rilke’s Malte Laurids Brigge, who experiences a total Durchdringung between his inner psyche and the outside “urban terror” (46). [End Page 138]
The following seven chapters trace similar experiences of urban life more or less chronologically among the wide selection of authors listed above and through corresponding thematic constellations that follow from the content of the texts. For example, Huyssen’s reading of Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood (in Chapter Six) has a special focus...